Outlaw country legend and honky-tonk hero Billy Joe Shaver dies at 81

By Lynne Margolis
They say everything is bigger in Texas. That goes for legends, too, but Billy Joe Shaver lived a life that was bigger and wilder than any legend could contain. Shaver, the singer-songwriter who most deeply represented the outlaw part of outlaw country, died Wednesday, Oct. 28, at Ascension Providence Hospital in Waco, Texas, a day after suffering a massive stroke, according to Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona. He was 81.

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Texas Monthly reported Shaver had contracted COVID-19 during the summer — after beating simultaneous bouts of flu and pneumonia in 2019 — then suffered a bad fall in September. He’d been recovering and writing songs at his home in Lorena, Texas, near Waco.

Beloved among his peers — and listed at No. 65 on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 country artists of all time — Shaver’s songs were recorded by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, separately and as the Highwaymen. Shaver wrote or cowrote all but one song on Jennings’ 1973 release, Honky Tonk Heroes, an album many consider a defining moment in the genre that would become known as outlaw country. Nelson, who once labeled Shaver as Texas’ greatest living songwriter, covered his “We are the Cowboys” on his July release, First Rose of Spring.

Shaver’s songs, full of wit, heart and plainspoken truths, could make listeners laugh, then cry, then laugh through the tears. Among the scores of artists who covered gems such as “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “When I Get My Wings,” “Black Rose” and “Live Forever” were Elvis Presley, Bobby Bare (who hired Shaver as a writer when the young Texan first ventured to Nashville), Tom T. Hall, the Allman Brothers, Joe Ely and another just-departed icon, Jerry Jeff Walker. Robert Duvall sang “Live Forever” in the hit 2009 film Crazy Heart, and put Shaver onscreen in his 1997 film, The Apostle. Bob Dylan mentioned Shaver in his song, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”

His songs were also beloved by younger-generation artists. Upon hearing of Shaver’s passing, Jason Isbell tweeted, “Billy Joe Shaver might’ve been the only true outlaw who ever made his living writing about the inner workings of his heart. The realest of them all.”

Singer-songwriter Todd Snider, a Shaver protégé and friend of his son, Eddy, became somewhat of a surrogate son after Eddy died from a heroin overdose at 38. Snider wound up testifying as a character witness when Shaver was tried on a charge of aggravated assault after shooting a man in the face outside a Lorena bar in 2007 (Duvall and Nelson attended the trial). He was acquitted in 2010 after claiming he shot in self-defense (despite witnesses testifying they heard him ask “where do you want it?” before pulling the trigger).

Shaver was born in Corsicana, Texas, in 1939; his father abandoned the family before he was born. Shaver’s grandmother helped raise him, but he would sometimes accompany his mother to her job at a honky-tonk in Waco, 60 miles away. He quit school in eighth grade and began picking cotton, then joined the Navy in his teens. After his discharge, he married Brenda Joyce Tindell; they would marry three times and divorce twice before she died of cancer in 1999, just weeks after his mother’s death and months before their son’s death on Dec. 31 of that year.

By then, Eddy had become an accomplished guitarist; he and his father performed and recorded together for several years as Shaver. They also cowrote “Live Forever,” one of Billy Joe’s most poignant songs. Two nights after his son’s death, Shaver was slated to play Poodie’s Hilltop Bar & Grill in Spicewood Springs, Texas. Nelson, who lost a son to suicide in 1991 and lived near the venue (owned by his now-late stage manager, Randall “Poodie” Locke), joined him onstage, then finished his set.

In 2000, Shaver nearly succumbed to a heart attack, which took place onstage at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas. He recovered and went on to marry Wanda Lynn Canady — twice. They reunited after their first marriage was annulled; she had filed for divorce before the shooting incident, but testified on his behalf at his trial.

Shaver had tried a series of jobs to make ends meet before pursuing a songwriting career, including rodeo riding and working in a lumber mill, which cost him 2½ fingers on his right hand when he was 21. The loss only added to his badass legend, as did all the bone breaks and other injuries he endured from altercations he got into during his own struggles with drugs and alcohol.   

After hitchhiking to Nashville on a cantaloupe truck and convincing Bobby Bare to hire him, his songwriting started to gain traction. He released his debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, the same year Jennings released Honky Tonk Heroes; 16 more studio albums and a handful of live albums followed, along with writing credits on dozens of other artists’ releases. Shaver earned a Grammy nomination, induction into the Nashville Songwriters and Texas Country Music halls of fame, and the Americana Music Association’s first Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting, presented at its inaugural Americana Honors & Awards ceremony in 2002. In 2019, he received the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award. He was working on a followup to his memoir, Honky Tonk Hero, at the time of his death.

Though he also appeared on the PBS-TV show Austin City Limits several times, according to producer and host Lickona, “He never got the full credit or attention that he deserved. And I’m not sure if he really wanted it.

“He always said that he was mainly interested in being a songwriter, and everything else came second. And it shows in his work,” Lickona noted. “He was a master among masters when it came to his songs, and he really was responsible for Waylon Jennings’ early success.

“And,” Lickona added, “he lived the life of the country-music outlaw more than anybody else.”

“Live Forever” lyrics
I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now
You’re gonna wanna hold me
Just like I always told you
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
Nobody here will ever find me
But I will always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now

You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don’t let the darkness take ’em
Don’t make ’em feel forsaken
Just lead them safely to the light
When this old world has blown asunder
And all the stars fall from the sky
Remember someone really loves you
We’ll live forever you and I

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now

Billy Joe Shaver at AmericanaFest 2014 (Photo By Lynne Margolis)

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